Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Flower for Ms. Rossi

May, 2016

It’s Wednesday of teacher appreciation week at my kids’ elementary school, which means that we’re in a scramble to find a flower. This happens every year. Wednesday is “bring your teacher a flower day,” and we’re never prepared.

We’ve got all the other days down—bring a handmade card on Monday, wear your teacher’s favorite color on Tuesday, give your teacher a homemade meal on Thursday (luckily, the room parents coordinate this one), show your talent on Friday—but flower day always catches us off guard.

The idea is that each child will bring a flower, creating a lovely bouquet for the teacher to decorate her classroom and then take home with her.

But first of all, we don’t just have flowers lying around the house. And second, I’m not a fan of cut flowers.

One year, I rushed off the grocery store late on Tuesday night to get flowers—and ended up bringing home two large potted roses, which the kids hauled into school the next day and presented to their astonished teachers. Another year, we made paper flowers, because, as I told the kids, they will last longer than cut flowers (and we do happen to have a lot of paper around the house).

But now, as night is falling and bedtime approaching on Tuesday, we’re out of ideas. We do have tulips growing in the backyard, so the kids briefly entertain the idea of digging up a couple of tulip bulbs and sticking them in pots, but digging in the dark doesn’t appeal to me. Besides, there isn’t much time.

Then I spot my daughter’s amaryllis sitting in a pot by her window. She’s carefully hand pollinated the plant and collected its papery seeds in a small box. I have an idea.

“What if we give your teachers not a flower, per se, but the promise of a flower?” I suggest.

We do a quick online search for instructions on sprouting amaryllis seeds. It doesn’t sound that hard. The kids place a handful of the seeds in small packets and write notes.

Here is the beginning of your bouquet of the future. These are amaryllis seeds from my plant at home. To begin your bouquet, follow these steps.

The kids put their notes and seed packets into envelopes. My son writes, “Mrs. O’s flower” on his. “A bouquet for those with patience,” my daughter writes.

“I like it that my flower has never been a part of the class bouquet,” she tells me. “I like to be different.”

***

After the kids have gone off on the bus, I scan through Facebook postings and see a couple from Ms. Rossi, my old high school teacher. She’s posted a photograph of her teaching contract with the following item checked:

I hereby retire from my position effective at the end of the current 2015-16 school year.

In a separate post, she’s written the following:

So, I have a favor to ask of the past students who are my FB friends. I would love to have you send me a note telling me when and where I taught you, anything memorable about that time, what you did after high school, and what you are doing now. I think I will create a project for myself and compile all the notes in a scrapbook. Thanks!

Ms. Rossi has been my Facebook friend since 2010, but I haven’t seen her in person since I graduated from high school over twenty years ago. She’s about the age of my mother, her daughter is about my age, and her grandsons are about the age of my kids. So I often see pictures of her grandsons playing baseball in California, and she sometimes comments on status updates about my kids in Connecticut. That’s been the extent of our communication for the past few years. I moved away from my California hometown sixteen years ago and haven’t set foot in my high school for even longer.

And yet, as I read over her post, I know immediately that I have to contribute to her project. If anyone deserves a flower during teacher appreciation week, it’s Ms. Rossi.

When I first walked into my honors world history class as a freshman, I was met by a demanding, intimidating teacher. Though small in stature, Ms. Rossi was stern and formidable, her presence immense. Her standards were high, impeccable. With two decades of teaching experience under her belt, she knew how to command a classroom. She wore her long salt-and-pepper hair in tight curls, and her black piercing eyes bore into me with disapproval.

I try to imagine how I first appeared to Ms. Rossi: sullen, quiet, defiant, disenchanted, slinking in and out of the room, avoiding her, avoiding school, avoiding everything. I came to class smelling of cigarettes, wearing heavy metal band t-shirts, acid-washed jeans, and a long black trench coat—when I came to class at all. I was terrified to face her wrath after missing assignments, missing class. Whereas most of my teachers seemed to quickly give up on me, Ms. Rossi’s simmering anger with me only increased.

I didn’t like Ms. Rossi, not at all. And I had the feeling that she didn’t like me.

It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing the work. It was that I was lost, adrift, unable to see my way out of the prison that my large, public high school seemed to be.

In Ms. Rossi’s class, I turned in nearly flawless work—or no work at all.

“Wow! A very nice job! Good use of vocabulary, well developed!” Ms. Rossi wrote on a paper about Chinese paragons that I completed in October of my freshman year. “Whoa! Learn to limit yourself!” she wrote on a lengthy paper I turned in the following month about Japanese peasants in the 1600s. Both papers earned perfect scores. (And yes, I still have those papers, as well as others.)

When I did the work, I earned high scores. When I didn’t do work, I got zeroes. And more and more, as my freshman year wore on, I didn’t do the work. And I didn’t go to class.

I had a biology teacher who asked me to tell him stories of my exploits, and so I would tell him about cutting class to smoke in the bathroom and jumping over the fence to get off campus, to get as far away as possible from the revolving series of deadening classes that seemed to have nothing to do with the adolescent turmoil that was consuming me from within. The fact that a couple thousand teenagers were all locked up together for eight hours a day and marched from room to room every fifty minutes seemed unbearably inhumane to me. High school was containment, prison. I told my biology teacher stories of stealing liquor and getting drunk and running away from home. He gave me an undeserved D in honors biology, either for my storytelling abilities, or out of sheer pity.

Ms. Rossi didn’t award pity grades, and she would have been disgusted by my stories, if I ever dared tell them to her. In her class, you performed, or you failed. And I was failing. It was likely Ms. Rossi would soon be gone from my life for good. And that was just fine. I never wanted to see her—or my high school—again.

***

There’s more to the story about the amaryllis plant.

A year and a half ago, my daughter performed in a children’s production of High School Musical, Jr. When I arrived at the performance, I realized I was just about the only parent not holding a lavish bouquet of flowers to hand to my child at the conclusion of the show.

I still had about half an hour before the curtain went up, so I dashed to a nearby grocery store where I agonized over the cut flower options. I picked up a bouquet, put it back, picked up another bouquet, then put that one back—until I was nearly out of time. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy cut flowers, but I didn’t want to return to the theater empty handed.

None of the potted plants looked appealing—they were all too large or withered or ferny. And that’s when I found a burlap sack that contained, according to the affixed tag, an amaryllis bulb and dirt.

We already had an amaryllis growing at home—my son’s birth flower that was given to me right after he was born—and I knew my daughter would like to have her own. So I grabbed the burlap sack and headed for the checkout line.

The cashier paused to look at my singular purchase.

“My mother has an amaryllis that she keeps by the woodstove all winter,” he told me. “It makes the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.”

“How old is it?” I asked. The man was older than me, and I could only guess that his mother was elderly.

“Oh, maybe forty years?” he said. “Maybe more?”

“Same bulb?” I asked.

“Same exact bulb,” he told me. “Who knows—this one could last just as long. Or even longer.”

Feeling more confident with my purchase, I headed back to the theater. Only now, there were even more beaming, proud parents holding even more ostentatious bouquets clutched in their laps.

My burlap sack was clearly out of place. I pushed it far under my chair where no one could see it.

After the show, I sheepishly presented it to my daughter, explaining that it would be an amaryllis flower—eventually—but for now it was a bulb and some dirt.

She beamed.

Another parent came up to her to praise her performance. “What do you have there?” the mom asked, eyeing the burlap sack.

“My mom gave me a sack of dirt!” she exclaimed, her smile stretching practically ear to ear. “Isn’t that awesome?”

At home, she planted the bulb in a pot and carefully tended to it.

Four months later, the amaryllis bloomed, just in time for her birthday.

“I’m glad I had to wait this long to get my flower,” she told me.

***

By the end of my freshman year, I stopped attending school altogether. A long, rough summer followed. In August, my mother took me back to Russia, still the Soviet Union then. It was her native land and my birthplace. And it was a place where the most basic tasks—like getting food or medical care—were inordinately difficult. We stood in long lines for meat and mayonnaise. My grandmother’s hands shook uncontrollably from Parkinson’s, and my grandfather had a bad heart. My ennui and sullenness began to evaporate. High school went from being the source of all torment in my life to an inconvenience. There were other struggles, I saw, that were much more real and significant.

Still, I didn’t want to go back to school. There were meetings with my guidance counselor. At fifteen, I was too young to drop out. Wasn’t there anything I wanted to do? my parents and counselor asked me. I didn’t have to take honors classes, I didn’t have to be in the International Baccalaureate program, but I had to go back to school.

Yes, I told them. There was one thing I wanted to do: write for the school newspaper. Writing: that was the only thing I wanted to do, the only thing I would go back for. And I didn’t want to write papers and essays for mere grades; I wanted to write pieces that would be published. I wanted to do the kind of writing that mattered.

But there was one glitch: Ms. Rossi was the newspaper advisor. And she let in students at her discretion. I would have to approach her and ask to join the newspaper staff.

After my dismal performance freshman year, I was certain that she would turn me down, certain that this one thing that I wanted to do, this one thing that mattered, would be shut off to me. And I would remain lost.

I came to her classroom during the lunch period. She was sitting at her desk, and I remember standing there, looking down at her, mumbling something about wanting to write for the newspaper. I remember her dark eyes boring into me for a long time as she considered her answer. She asked me if I was sure. She stressed the importance of attendance and hard work and making deadlines. Newspaper was a team effort, and newspaper deadlines were even more important than deadlines for class assignments. Yes, I told her, I knew that. This was precisely what I wanted: important deadlines, a sense that I was doing something meaningful. I didn't say all of this, though. I remember mostly nodding, agreeing with all of her warnings and admonitions.

I don’t think she believed I would live up to her high expectations, but she was willing to give me a chance. Even though I had failed utterly, she gave me that one additional chance.

And that was all I needed. I went back to school. I took adult education classes after school to make up for the classes I had failed the year before. I did my work diligently, but I poured my passion into writing for the newspaper.

Ms. Rossi demanded good work, and I produced it. Her praise was hard to come by, but I earned it, one story at a time. And she was different in newspaper class—more relaxed, funnier, at ease among that cohort of students who chose to be there, who wrote because they loved to write.

I composed my articles at home on an electric typewriter, banging out draft after draft, until they were as perfect as I could make them—for Ms. Rossi. I still have them all, yellowed newspaper clippings inserted into protective sleeves in a thick binder. I wrote stories about foreign exchange students, profiles of teachers, opinion pieces, and long articles about my experiences in the Soviet Union.

I wrote my best work in high school for Ms. Rossi.

I never came to love high school. I never even liked it. But newspaper was the one thing that kept me going. It made everything else worthwhile. It was the one thing I was good at.

And Ms. Rossi was the one teacher who consistently inspired me to do my best.

Sometimes, one is enough.

Towards the end of my high school career, Ms. Rossi wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf for a scholarship that I was applying for. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I got something even better: a copy of the letter that she wrote. It was the first letter a teacher had ever written for me and given to me.

I still have it, the paper beginning to yellow.

If this letter is supposed to impress, it should be written by someone with a gift for writing: Lisa Renfro. In my twenty-five years of secondary teaching, I have encountered few students as talented as Lisa.

I first met Lisa four years ago when she was a freshman in my Honors World History class. School was not a priority for her at that time and I feared she was just another bright student with no goals. When she applied to the North Star, our school newspaper, I was surprised. I indicated that perfect attendance and “time on task” would be important and I would not hesitate to drop her from the staff if she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) produce. Lisa assured me that she wanted to join the staff and she wanted to write.

And write she did! From the beginning, Lisa’s articles were virtually error-free, but there was more than technical perfection. Lisa could take an ordinary topic and create a story; from an ordinary story she created poetry. Lisa’s articles were always marked by warmth, heart, and humor.

She goes on to describe my contributions for each of the three years that I was involved with the newspaper. Towards the end of the letter, she writes:

Though I can’t take any of the credit, I will certainly share the pride. Writing is truly her gift; don’t be surprised to hear of her in years to come.

She deserves more credit than she probably ever imagined.

When Ms. Rossi was my teacher, she was in the middle of her teaching career. She had already been teaching for twenty years, I was her student for four, and then she taught for another twenty-three. Forty-seven years in all. I have no doubt that many other students will take up her request to write stories of her influence on their lives. Many of these students are high achievers, honors and International Baccalaureate students who excelled all four years of high school.

It is a testament to Ms. Rossi that she was able to shepherd those who knew their way as well as those who nearly lost it. When I now find myself looking at one of my own students who seems to be lost, I often think of Ms. Rossi. I remind myself that one teacher can make a difference.

***

In the afternoon, the kids come home from school with news about their flowers.

Mrs. O said the amaryllis seeds were perfect because their class is about to start a unit on soil and plants. Mrs. A appreciated her “bouquet for those with patience” and said it was very clever.

My daughter, who will be leaving elementary school forever in a month, likes the idea that some part of her will stay behind with Mrs. A.

In their notes about how to sprout the amaryllis seeds, the kids explained to their teachers that the tiny bulbs will take years to mature. Both of my kids will be done with elementary school before the flowers ever bloom. My daughter’s note concludes:

In four or five years (when I am in high school!) the bulbs will be big enough to bloom, and your bouquet will finally be complete!

At home, she cups the seeds in her hands, feeling for the tiny bumps within the papery husks. There is much work to be done quietly in the dark, underground. She imagines the bulb’s burgeoning, the plant’s narrow leaves slicing upward, and finally, years from now, the slow unfurling of its magnificent petals on Mrs. A’s desk, opening for a new group of fifth graders.

It only seems fitting that the flower will be so long in coming.

***

Looking at Ms. Rossi’s Facebook photos, I see that her hair is all gray now, and she no longer wears it permed in those severe, tightly wound curls. It’s wavy, relaxed, and there’s a softness to her face. She is less formidable. Or maybe the change is entirely in my perception, and not in her. Really, in many ways, she is little changed. I would recognize her in a heartbeat.

The rest of my answer to Ms. Rossi’s prompt will be brief: Once I got to college, once I left the prison of high school behind, I learned to love school. In fact, I stayed in school for over a decade, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and then a Ph.D. Actually, I’m still in school—but now as a teacher.

And I am also a writer. And still, when I write, I often write for Ms. Rossi, or what she represents for me: a reader with the highest standards who expects dedication and hard work, who believes—against all evidence to the contrary—that I can succeed, who brings out my best, who cares about the one thing that matters, the one thing that can make all the difference, the one thing that is enough.

So, this is my final assignment for Ms. Rossi, turned in nearly 27 years after I first walked into her classroom.

This is my flower for my teacher.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Xylotheque Reviews

Xylotheque has been out for a little over a year now. I've collected a number of reviews of the book with links below.
  • Brenda Miller wrote a beautiful lyric essay/review at the Los Angeles Review of Books ("Pregnant Pauses: Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s Lyric Essays").
  • Lenore Myka contributed a review to Colorado State University's Center for Literary Publishing (home of the Colorado Review).
  • Gwendolyn Edward wrote a review for American Microreviews & Interviews.
  • BK Loren reviewed the book for Orion (link to pdf here).
  • Susan Wittig Albert wrote a review for Story Circle Book Reviews.
  • Maggie Trapp recently reviewed the book for Terrain.org ("Taproot~Writing a Life of Trees").
And here's a recent interview about the book at Story Circle.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sarton Memoir Award

I'm thrilled to share this news: Xylotheque was recently awarded the Sarton Memoir Award from Story Circle Network! Here's a photo of the nifty award that arrived in the mail last week.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing the First Chapter

The assignment: to write the first chapter of The Great Connecticut Caper, a serialized storybook that would be created by twelve different writers and twelve different illustrators living in Connecticut.

The target audience: children in grades four through seven.

The premise: Gillette Castle is going missing!

The challenge: to create an engaging, fast-paced opening chapter that would introduce sympathetic characters and lay out some basic plot elements. And to do it in under 650 words.


The process: The first step was research. We made a family trip to Gillette Castle in East Haddam where we learned about William Gillette, the eccentric actor who brought Sherlock Holmes to life on the stage and who designed his twenty-four room mansion to resemble the ruin of a medieval castle. We toured the home, looking at hidden passageways and the surveillance system based on strategically placed mirrors, and we wandered the grounds, admiring his personal railroad track as well as his woods and views of the Connecticut River.

But we weren’t done yet. On another weekend, we took a ride on the Essex Steam Train and the Becky Thatcher Riverboat, learning about the Connecticut River, getting a different vantage point of Gillette Castle from the water, and discovering more about William Gillette.


As a writer, I often start projects with research. And as a parent, I often take my kids along. But this assignment was different. I am primarily a writer of books for adults, and this project was writing for children. Luckily, I had my own kids to consult.

So after the research stage, I had a long brainstorming session with my fourth grader (with the first grader listening in and offering occasional advice). We discussed what makes a good story and interesting characters. We talked about mystery books for children. We tossed around ideas for the story and possible character names. The fourth grader taught me how to make a character map, and she created several for possible characters. The first grader made one as well.

We agreed early on that the protagonists should be children, and that there should be two of them—a boy and a girl. (We discussed Ron Roy’s and Mary Pope Osborne’s books as examples.) The names and character traits of the boy and girl kept changing, but we finally settled on Thomas and Li-Ming. And during a long walk through our neighborhood, the fourth grader and I discussed different possible openings. Should the protagonists be touring the castle? Should they be on a riverboat cruise? What other characters should be introduced? What should happen at the end of the chapter?

There would be a cliffhanger, we decided, so readers would want to tune in for the following installment. And we needed to create openings for other writers to build the story—characters who could be further developed, situations that could be interpreted in more than one way.

Finally, once we had hashed out everything, I wrote the chapter. The first draft came in at over 900 words. So then I cut, and I cut some more. And finally, when the chapter was just under 650 words, I read it to my kids. They loved it. But they also had a few suggestions. I revised. I read it again.

It was a process of learning together. I shared what I knew about storytelling with my kids, and they shared what they knew with me.

The outcome: See for yourself here where the first chapter was posted on January 4. And please check back every two weeks as more chapters go live. I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here. And so are my kids.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Photo/Text 10: Shadows

When the low-hanging winter sun paints us gold and persimmon hues with its lukewarm laving, I look not so much at things as at their stretched taffy shadows. Reading them like tea leaves, it is not the future nor the past that I seek, because I am imbued always in these other times, in these not-nows; they are like cataracts upon my eyes, the future and the past, clouding my vision. So what I read in the shadows is something much more fleeting and inscrutable, something that eludes my gaze: the slippery present, not distorted but rather enhanced as shadow, the clarity jarring and pure, showing me the outlines of the desert, of where I am and who I am today, right now, this moment. Distilled into shadow, I stand and look upon myself at the setting of another year.


 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Xylotheque: "Soviet Trees"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. The photo accompanying this post was taken in Riverside when I was twelve, shortly before the events described in the essay. “Soviet Trees” first appeared in Parcel in 2011.

Excerpt from "Soviet Trees"

The girls crowd around you, studying your face, your hair, especially your clothes. They scrutinize the words Highland and Riverside printed in goldenrod letters on your royal-blue sweat shirt. What do they mean? Are they a brand name? The girls demand answers. They ask you to repeat the words again and again. You’ve been taken captive by these anthropologists in the guise of Soviet teenage girls. Like all anthropologists, they see you projected through themselves. They don’t understand why you would grow weary of saying the words—Highland, Riverside, Highland, Riverside—like some tired incantation. As far as you’re concerned, whatever significance the words carry has been eked out on the third or fourth repetition, and you want to tell them that the words are now nonsense on your tongue, that you yourself have forgotten what they mean. Highland. Riverside. For the girl-anthropologists the words are redolent of freshly manufactured goods, and of freedom and dollars. They stare at your sweat shirt as though it provides a window into America, all of it, in its unimaginable wealth.

There a few things you need to know. It’s the summer of 1987, and you’re in Kuybyshev, a city closed to foreigners. The girls are Young Pioneers, and this is still the Soviet Union—but actually, there’s no still about it. Remember that. It simply is, for you and the girls, for as long as you’ve been alive, and for as long as your parents have been alive. To say it is still the Soviet Union is like boarding the Titanic for her maiden voyage, looking out at her massive decks, and thinking, Someday, I’ll remember this as the time when the Titanic was still afloat. How could you believe, standing on the deck, that either of those colossal ships, the Titanic or the Soviet Union, would ever go down?

You’re only twelve—remember that, too—but you’ve been put in the oldest group, with girls who are mostly fourteen, because you’re tall and precocious. They keep asking about what kinds of things you own, how much stuff costs in America, what the stores are like, and how much money your family has. They want a full inventory of America, from top to bottom, from side to side, as though America is just a vast storage unit full of material goods. You don’t know where to begin, but you feel like a celebrity. For the first time in your life, you’re popular, the star attraction. You suddenly have so many friends you can’t remember their names. They crowd closer and closer, trying to lay their claims on you, trying to see what an American looks like. They comment on your American face, which leaves you stunned. Americans have always commented on your Russian face. It’s turning out you look like no one at all. It’s turning out that your amalgamation of Russian and American features has made you only uniquely yourself, unlike anyone else, which is the last thing you want. You’re twelve, remember. You want to shout—but I’m Russian like you!—though quite clearly, you’re not. Quite clearly, you don’t belong here. The hot heavy press of the girls in the cramped humid room renders you an exotic cornered animal whose fate lies in the hands of your captors. And quite clearly, they haven’t finished sizing you up yet. They haven’t yet decided what to make of you.

They demand to know, among other things, how you got here. To get into the camp you have to have a pass, and in order to get a pass, you have to have connections. You explain that your mother was able to get you a pass through her former college roommate, who is connected to the trade union. The girls seem dubious. This is a camp for future Soviets. It certainly is not a camp for American girls, even American girls who don’t believe they’re American, who think they’re Russian, which is the kind of American girl you are.

In your slightly awkward Russian, you tell your unlikely story: that your mother is Russian and your father American, that they met in graduate school in Leningrad, that you were born in Kuybyshev and lived there with your Russian grandparents and mother and aunt until you were three. And then you left with your mother to be with your American father in a fantastical place called Riverside, California. Yes, you’ve seen the Pacific Ocean. Yes, you have a river of sorts, but it’s puny—often just a dry riverbed—compared to the Volga,. Yes, that’s the unlikely kind of rivers you have in America. And you have unlikely trees—palm and navel orange and avocado and eucalyptus—and unlikely stores, too, where, yes, it’s true, you can buy just about anything you want, as long as you have money. Yes, Highland is the name of your school, but you don’t know why. You know the names for many things in America but don’t know why those are their names.


To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Life and Work after the MFA

Recently I was asked, along with two other alumni, to return to my MFA alma mater to teach a graduate class and give a reading as part of the visiting writers series. After the reading, we alumni were asked to discuss life and work after the MFA. So on my seven-hour train ride from Hartford to Washington, DC, I began to think about what I would tell students currently in the midst of an MFA program about what might await them.

I was fortunate to be able to come down a couple of days early, which allowed me to catch up with my MFA friends who still live in the area. Ten years out from the MFA, we talked about where we were, what we had done, what we were working on, and what roles writing and reading still play in our lives.

My friend Ananya and I both had children (who are now fourth graders) right after finishing our MFAs. While her full-time day job, an editing position, does not allow for a great deal of creativity, she’s published nonfiction at the WashingtonianThe Guardian, and The Baltimore Sun, and she is also an assignment editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

My friend Christa accepted a full-time editor/writer position with a federal agency right after finishing her MFA and has now worked in this career for a decade. With two preschool-age children, she currently doesn’t have a lot of time for creative projects, but she does carve out writing time when she can—writing on her phone, for example, just to capture observations, dialogue, whatever comes to her. Since completing her MFA, her nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American (available online here) and on PBS.org.

My friend Amanda had her debut novel, I Know Where I Am When I'm Falling, published earlier this year. The mother of adult children, she is currently at work on more fiction, teaches part time at a community college, runs book discussion groups, and is also a sculptor.

Unfortunately, the four of us were not able to get together all at the same time, but I did get to spend an evening with Ananya and Christa, and the following afternoon with Ananya and Amanda. (Amanda blogged about our conversation here.)

And as I was talking with these friends, I kept thinking about what advice I would give to current MFA students about what awaits them after the degree. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

You might look back on your time in the MFA and wonder what you’ve squandered those two or three years on. Right now—these years you are in a graduate program supported by people who care passionately about writing—is your time to write. Seize it. Make the most if it. You might feel overwhelmed with seminar papers, part-time jobs, teaching duties, but remember that right now your life is largely devoted to creative writing. And that may never be true again. Your life is likely to become even more overwhelming and complicated after the MFA. You may never have the kind of time you have now. And take advantage of all the resources available to you in your program (and in other departments as well). Take classes with a wide range of faculty in multiple genres. It took me years to figure out I was also a nonfiction writer because I stuck so stubbornly to classes within my chosen genre—fiction. And to this day I regret not taking a single poetry class during my MFA program. Seize these opportunities.

You aren’t likely to make your living as a writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. You may make some money at it, but it probably won’t pay the bills. And unless you’re independently wealthy or have a spouse with a well-paying job who is able to support you financially, you’ll need to take on other work that does pay the bills. Consider this before finishing your MFA. Think about ways you can make yourself marketable in a career. Think about the types of work—editing, teaching, technical writing, curriculum development, grant writing—that you might take on and how you can begin to prepare for that future now. This might mean working as an editor for a scholarly or literary journal affiliated with your institution, being an RA for a professor, being a TA to get teaching experience, taking a class in grant writing or business writing, finding an internship in the field you’re interested in, working at a part time job that might become full time, volunteering, finding a mentor, taking classes with faculty outside of your department, etc. This doesn’t need to take up a huge amount of your time; even making preliminary steps can help poise you for employment after the MFA.

Keep writing after the MFA. It will be hard. Suddenly, your vast support network—your professors, your fellow students—will be all but gone. No one will be demanding work on a regular basis. No one will be encouraging you in weekly workshops. Writing may quickly slip down to the bottom of your to-do list. Writing will go from being the center of your working life to a labor of love. Writing will take time away from your family life, from paid work. And you might find—as I did and as I still do—that days, weeks, months can slip by without any creative work getting done. Christa said, “In the MFA program and right after, I had these ideals of what writing time looked like—long stretches of time that I could set aside for unfettered and uninterrupted writing.” For most, this is the ideal, not the reality. You will need to find ways to get the work done, if you want to continue to write. This perseverance takes on different forms—writing before dawn, writing after bedtime, writing on weekends, writing at your paid job, writing in little notebooks while your toddlers play. Find the ways that work for you, and stick to them.

Select your writing projects wisely. If you’re like me, you might have half a dozen books that you’d like to be working on all at the same time. There are always more projects than time to do them in. Pick the ones that you pursue carefully. If publication is important to you, then ask yourself: how likely is it that I will be able to publish this particular piece? Christa pointed out to me that while all four of us received our MFAs in fiction, three of us—Christa, Ananya, and myself—have published more nonfiction than fiction. Do I love nonfiction more than fiction? Not necessarily. But publishing it is easier. In Christa’s words: “The time crunch of post-MFA life has made me so pragmatic in a way I wasn't in graduate school.  I love all of my creative writing projects—short fiction, novel, nonfiction—but with so little writing time, I feel this pressure to ‘choose wisely’ in what I do write—what’s most likely to get published? It's become important for me to balance that pragmatism with making sure I love what I'm writing.”

What you now think success will look like is probably not what it will look like. When I was asked, during a casual conversation on my trip, whether or not I consider myself a “success,” I didn’t immediately have an answer. For one thing, I guess I don’t think of my life in terms of “success” or “failure”—I just keep working. But also, ten years ago when I was finishing my MFA, I never would have thought that I would end up here. True, I have published two books and have had work in numerous journals, but at the same time I don’t make my living as a writer. There are a lot of other things I’ve done—teaching, editing, curriculum development—that bring in more money and actually pay the bills. When I asked Amanda the question about success, she said something along these lines: “I get to spend most of my time, paid and unpaid, reading and writing, and thinking about reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing.” Yes, I thought. Me too. Even when I’m teaching or editing, I’m still engaged with reading and writing. When I think about it in that context, my days are full of the work that I was preparing to do in my MFA program. Success. My MFA writing friends and I have not (yet) penned bestsellers, but there is success of the daily, quiet kind, which is more lasting. Like spending our days reading and writing. Like being asked to return to my alma mater to teach the students whose shoes I was once in. Success.

Keep your writing friends. Stay in touch with people in your MFA program. Find good, sympathetic readers for your work—people who get what you’re trying to do and are generous with praise and criticism—and be proactive about continuing to exchange work with them after the MFA. If you get a full-time day job, you might find yourself surrounded by people who are not sympathetic to your creative goals. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself adrift, your writing friends scattered, distant. Find ways to stay in touch with them. Keep seeking out people who love the things you love, and connect with them, virtually or in person—however you can. Amanda and I have read one another’s book drafts. I hope to read a draft of Ananya’s novel soon. We are, as Amanda once said to me, members of the same tribe. Ten years after my MFA, this is one of the things that endures—the connections I made with fellow students. Even though the members of your tribe may scatter far and wide, keep those relationships. They will help to sustain your writing life long after you receive your diploma.